A Universalist Talks Sin

There is an article in today’s Huffington Post “Pope Francis, You Had Me at Hello, and Lost Me at Sinner” written by Rea Nolan Martin.  Martin expresses her admiration for Pope Francis with the exception of one thing.   She does not like it when the pope refers to himself as “a sinner.”

“…I ask him to think twice before he identifies himself or really any of us, as sinners first…So if not sinners, then who are we really? We are noble creatures endowed with a wealth of holy spiritual gifts that we are charged to develop and share generously with each other, the animal kingdom and the earth. If we see ourselves that way, maybe we’ll behave that way. Who we tell ourselves we are, matters.”

As a Universalist (Universalists believe in universal salvation) you would probably expect me to agree with this statement.  As a Unitarian Universalist, a partial outsider to the Christian faith, I had good reason to have a fully negative reaction to the entire concept of sin. Growing up in my pre-teen and early teen years in a fairly conservative, largely evangelical, community  the notion of sin was often directed toward people like me.  It took me a long time to find value in the concept of “sin.”

Martin’s article is founded on a number of unquestioned assumptions.  The first is that thinking positively about ourselves is, by definition, a positive and better for us and society.  The second is a dualistic view of our nature as human beings.  Western people, Americans in particular, tend to think of the self as largely separate from society and consistent no matter what the context. It is dualistic, binary.  If you are a sinner you cannot also be a saint.  If you are noble you cannot also be a sinner.

When the pope says he is a sinner, he is not necessarily making “sinner” is his identity.  Saying you are a sinner does not mean you are only a sinner.

My view on sin and the self is this: In our essential nature we are neither saints nor sinners. We are saint-sinners, people who, to put it in Christian theological terms, were created in the image of God, who retain sparks of something divine and who also have the capacity to do terrible wrongs. Being blind to either aspect of our human natures causes problems. Believing you are only noble is as unbalanced, unhealthy and potentially dangerous as believing you are only sinful.  To sin literally means “to fall short.” A sinner is not a category of person. A sinner is any person given the right (wrong) circumstances.

As St. Paul said in Romans, “I do not understand the things I do, for I do the very thing I hate.”

The Gospel of Mark, while not placed first in most Bibles, was the first of the Gospels to be written. When you read the gospels in this order the first thing Jesus is quoted as saying is:

“The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.” (“The Gospel” here, of course, is not the Bible which didn’t exist yet.  Gospel means “good news.”  Repent and hear the word of God.)

So the first time we hear the voice of Jesus he is saying, “repent.”

This is probably not the first thing liberal religious folk would like to hear him say.  We would like him to open with “Do unto others…” or “What you do to the least of these…”  He says “repent.”

Nowhere does he say, “Feel good about yourself because having good self-esteem makes you a better person.”

The idea that we have one nature– good or bad– leads us to all kinds of crazy behavior in order to bolster and preserve our images of ourselves as the “good people” we want ourselves to be.  The things we do to preserve our self-esteem are not always the healthiest for society.  Just to be clear, I am not saying that self-esteem is bad, I am saying that it should be realistic and based on real behavior and achievement. There is no great moral value in  feeling good about yourself when you have done a wrong.

A few days ago I happen to have been reading the book The Myth of Moral justice by Thane Rosenbaum.  In this critique of the moral dimensions of the legal system, Rosenbaum includes two chapters on apology.  “One of the dirty little secrets of the legal system is that if people could simply learn how to apologize, lawyers and judges would be out of work,” he wrote. “…The healing power of an apology is morally vital, but seldom seen. In his essay in the New York Times, Bill Keller observed how Americans have ‘refined the art of the apologetic-sounding non-apology to near perfection. I’m sorry if I’ve offended you.’.. In the United States, apologies are cynically applied, given as an excuse or justification for less than exemplary conduct, and not as sincere gestures of contrition.”

This is overstating the state of affairs in America a bit, and yet there is a ring of truth to it. In a culture that attributes most behaviors to inner qualities and makes them one’s unchanging identity, the stakes are very high to think of yourself as a good person and to get to work explaining away your misdeeds– as much for your own sense of self as for the other person.

Maybe it would not hurt, though, for more secular and liberal religious folk to embrace the language of sin.  I think of that rung on AA’s 12 steps:  the fearless moral inventory.  How often do we allow ourselves to do this?  More often people get to work covering up their faults, making excuses and justifications for them or pointing at other people and telling them to repent.

This past year I did a lot of reading on the life of Lord Alfred Douglas, the poet and lover of Oscar Wilde.  He was one of many of the gay men in Wilde’s circle who converted to Catholicism.  This was initially hard for me to understand.  The Catholic church then, as now, considered sexual activity between males to be a sin. Why would homosexuals be attracted to such a religion?

What was different in Christianity, and Catholicism, then and now was a matter of focus.

The authors of Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes (E. Randolph Richards;Brandon J. O’Brien) explain the cultural shift within the church this way: “…at least since the sexual revolution of the 1960s, majority Western culture insists that sex is always good. Christians naturally desire to resolve the tension. Marriage gives us a way to do that. We can affirm that sex is bad-in the wrong context. We can affirm, too, that God wants us to have a gratifying sex life, albeit in the right context: marriage. In this way we are able to affirm both statements. It could be that American Christians privilege marriage over singleness and celibacy because it eases the tension that exists between traditional Christian and secular views of human sexuality.”

In the 19th Century Catholic church any sexual activity besides reproductive sex (in its most extreme form, even this was limited to the missionary position) was sinful. Those who sinned , whether with their own sex or another were not types of people. There was sin and people transgressed it or did not. Thus the homosexual was not alone in wanting to purge himself of this body and all of its lusts and the pain that came with them. Outside the church walls this was an isolating feeling, inside, it was a collective one.

I am not suggesting that this is the way we should approach “sins of the flesh” now. My point is only that the sense that we are all sinners, that we all fall short, can be unifying.

The question is not whether we sin, but what is “sin” and who gets to define it?  The problem is when people (and these tend to be people who are determined they are the good people) are bold enough to speak for God.  There is a video that Stephen Fry made for Proud2Be which sums this idea up fairly well.  Fry is an atheist and does not use the language of sin, but speaks of “pride” and “shame.”

“Part of life is learning what to be ashamed of and what to be proud of.”

So who are we in our natures? What does it mean to be human?  We are people who strive to be mirrors of the divine.  We are flawed. We fall short. We try to be better. That is beautiful.

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